Zeitoun (the vowels are pronounced as in Jay and tune) is the current choice of “One City, One Book” in San Francisco, where its author, Dave Eggers (born in 1970) lives. Eggers, who was born in Boston and grew up in the toney Chicago suburb of Lake Forest, was trained as a journalist at the University of Illinois. To an overflow crowd at the San Francisco Public Library’s Koret Auditorium last night, he remarked that he was trained to write 800-word stories, not how to write books.
Given how long all his answers to questions were, I wonder about his ability to tell a story in 800 words. Eggers first came to widespread attention in 2000 with publication of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. It chronicled his struggle to raise his younger brother Christopher (“Toph”) the San Francisco Bay Area following the deaths of both of their parents in 1991, when Dave was 21 and Toph was eight years old.
In passing, Dave mentioned his years of temporary office work and drawing cartoons. His first book was a Pulitzer Prize finalist and his fictionalized memoir, What Is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng was a finalist for the National Book Award in fiction. (Deng was one of the Dinka “lost boys of Sudan” who was a refugee in Ethiopia and Kenya, like War Child’s Emanuel Jal; Eggers explained that the book was fiction because much of the book deals with when Deng was seven years old, and remembered spottily.)
In addition to eliciting (and supplementing) Deng’s life course, Eggers compiled interviews of wrongfully convicted (later exonerated) Americans in Surviving Justice in 2005. Eggers’ McSweeney project interviewed people from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city. One of those whose horrific memories appeared (occupying about ten pages) in Voices from the Storm was Abdulrahman Zeitoun.
(I guess I should issue a plot-spoiler alert here, though the book is not a novel.)
Zeitoun’s story dovetailed with Surviving Justice in that the Syrian-born painting contractor was arrested for looting while in a property he owned and with nothing that there was even slightly probable cause of being “loot” (not that there was a warrant, either…).
Zeitoun’s wife Kathy (an Anglo woman who had converted to Islam before meeting him) and their four children evacuated to her relatives in Baton Rouge, where she was born and grew up. He stayed to protect the house, repairing leaks, etc. They had gone and he had stayed in earlier storms…
He and the house came through the hurricane itself in good shape. The subsequent flooding was far more disastrous. He moved what he could carry alone upstairs and began paddling around the neighborhood in a canoe he’d bought some years before and never been able to get any family members into.
In the days after the storm, Zeitoun was feeding dogs left behind by their owners, saved the lives of at least three stranded old people, checked on his neighbors/clients’ properties and was able to phone from a building he owned in which one of his tenants had remained.
It was there that he was apprehended. He was thrown into an outdoor prison, Camp Grayhound, that the authorities built on the model of the Guantanemo detention facilities. As a contractor, he was impressed that so large a construction project could have been completed so fast, even as FEMA et al. were failing to provide minimal amenities (I mean toilets) to those in the Super Dome a few blocks away.
Zeitoun was treated as an al-Quaida terrorist, offered food that was pork-heavy even for Southern cuisine, then shipped off to maximum-security prison, Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel, were he was held incommunicado for twenty days and was refused medical attention.
Though the federal government was able to build new incarceration facilities, it did not bother to bring in judges or lawyers, or clerks to catalog, let alone process prisoners. Eggers does not need to editorialize about the carceral state and the priority on incarceration (and Bush’s photo-op diverting resources from rescuing people). Just laying out what happened here is quite sufficient.
The book alternates between sections about Abdulrahman Zeitoun and Kathy, who had to assume that when communication stopped her husband was dead. Eggers said that he thought what he was doing was expanding on Abdulrahman’s story of heroism and of mistreatment. Abdulrahman was usually late for appointed meetings, and talking with Kathy, he came to realize that her story was also interesting and dramatic.
Both seem too good to be true, though all this goodness is leavened by their joking relationship with each other… and their children, too, are quite capable of making sardonic remarks. Eggers said that there are no hidden vices, that the couple really are pillars of the community.
He also said that Abdulrahman insisted from the start at not being provided a pseudonym, even though the story includes humiliations he had not told Kathy or his siblings about. Abdulrahman Zeitoun is proud of his family name. BTW, the drawing of him on the book’s cover is based on his mug shot… and the canoe was stolen while he was incarcerated.
Although the book is primarily based on the time Eggers spent with the Zeitouns in what he characterized as “the warm chaos” of their home in which the business is based – and he said that going around with Abdulrahman provided not just a sense of his place in the community but prompted memories that had not been elicited in the many interviews – Eggers also visited family members in Syria and Abdulrahma’s brother, Ahmad, who lives in Spain. Plus neighbors, and the police officers who arrested Abdulrahman. The then-New Orleans policeman was tracked down in Shreveport. Eggers told of the interview in the man’s kitchen. Eggers was not allowed to record it or take notes, but he recalled that the man interrogated himself, including placing himself (as the one being questioned) under the only light in the room. (Eggers’s stories have telling details like that!). The other officer, lent to the crippled city by Albuequerque, NM, made clear that he was led to believe he was going to a war zone, but once there found that a great deal of search and rescue work (what Zeitoun had been doing) needed to be done.
Most of the audience (excepting the woman who asked why the Zeitouns stayed in New Orleans after the legal ordeal was over) seemed to have read the book and to have been outraged by the treatment of Abdulrahman Zeitoun. Eggers reported that the many cards and letters the family has received since the book came out almost all apologize on the behalf of the American people for the injustices and indignities the American government inflicted on them.